This book is a painful reminder of a world where war and violence reign, where hope has no power and family no meaning. Begun as a tender love story between a Montreal teen and her musician boyfriend, a Cambodian unable to return to his home country, the tale is written with grace and compassion, words born of centuries of suffering, the silent bearing witness, unable to offer even prayers for the dead.
At heart a love story, The Disappeared is as well a reminder of the Cambodian genocide (1975-79), in which two million people died, through the Vietnamese occupation (1979-89) and the United Nations Transitional Authority leading to a democratic election in 1993. It is the era of genocide, Pol Pot’s destruction of a country and the attempts of the United Nations to restore peace where violence is still endemic, where government will tolerate no questions or reminders of the infamous past.
But when Anne Greves first hears the exotic mix of blues and Khmer songs, she falls hopelessly in love with Serey, a student unable to return home or learn the fate of his parents and little brother. The first months in Montreal are idyllic, the lovers as one, Anne unwilling to be separated from Serey. Then, with the opening of the Cambodian border, Serey slips into the past as Anne waits for letters that never arrive. By chance she sees him in a crowd on television six years after they first became lovers. Determined, she travels to Phnom Penh to find him. Unbelievably, Anne locates Serey and the two are reunited, bound as tightly together as before.
The author treads a fine line between a tender, erotic love story and the ongoing horrors of the Cambodian genocide. Regardless of the purity of Anne’s love and her embrace of Serey’s country, evil forces are at work, silencing those who would speak of the shame. It is nearly impossible to imagine the shocking numbers of the disappeared, or Anne’s stubborn refusal to walk away from her lover regardless of personal danger: “My love for you has made me dead in life and you alive in death.”
The country reeling from the endless violence and senseless deaths, Anne finds beauty in a shabby apartment, closing her eyes to the danger around them. Somehow the author successfully marries the emotional context of the lover’s story with the horrendous circumstances in Cambodia, her graceful language rising above the stink of death. A devastating and painful book, there remains a clear note of joy, one woman’s utter belief in the rightness of her love.